Excerpt from The Mind at Night by Andrea Rock, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Mind at Night

The New Science of How and Why we Dream

by Andrea Rock

The Mind at Night by Andrea Rock X
The Mind at Night by Andrea Rock
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2004, 256 pages
    Mar 2005, 240 pages

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When Aserinsky hooked up Armond for a night’s sleep session, he was startled to see that the pens periodically stopped tracing the patterns of slow, even waves that appeared in early stages of sleep and instead began wildly scratching out sharp peaks and valleys similar to patterns generated during waking hours. Since this finding contradicted the prevailing scientific view that the brain essentially shut down and remained in a passive state during sleep, Aserinsky at first assumed that the polygraph was simply malfunctioning. After consulting with engineering experts, including the man who’d designed the machine he was using, Aserinsky came up with a way to record movements from each eye independently and verify that the unusual patterns he was seeing were indeed real.

He repeated the experiment on adult sleepers and not only found the same spiky patterns he’d seen with Armond but confirmed that they occurred with clocklike regularity four or five times a night and coincided with rapid eye movements that were clearly visible beneath the sleeper’s closed eyelids. Putting all of the evidence together, Aserinsky suspected that he might actually be seeing dreaming in action. His hunch was reinforced when he awakened a sleeping male subject who had begun crying out while experiencing wild eye movements that nearly unhinged the pens on the polygraph. The man reported that he had indeed been having a violent nightmare. As the study progressed, evidence mounted that when subjects were awakened in the midst of rapid eye movement periods, they almost always had vivid dream recall. But if they were awakened when no eye movements were present, they rarely remembered anything.

Kleitman was highly skeptical when Aserinsky first showed him the results he was getting on this strange sleep stage that he had begun to call the rapid eye movement (REM) period. Yet the consistency of the mounting body of evidence piqued the older man’s interest, and he gradually became a believer, assigning another lab assistant to assist Aserinsky in making the REM recordings. But before presenting the new data publicly for the first time at a scientific meeting in 1953, Kleitman--who had a reputation as an extremely fastidious investigator--wanted to observe the experimental procedure firsthand with his own daughter as a test subject. When she experienced the same regular pattern of rapid eye movements throughout sleep, the case was sealed for Kleitman. The results of the REM experiments were published by the respected journal Science in 1953, and Kleitman granted his ultimate seal of approval: his name was listed behind Aserinsky’s as joint author.

The landmark study forced scientists to completely rethink their assumptions about what happens during sleep. Far from merely idling all night, as they’d previously thought, the brain regularly revved up into a supercharged state akin to waking consciousness. Exactly what the brain was doing during these REM periods was a mystery, but dreaming unquestionably was an important part of the answer.

The 1960s became the golden age of dream research, as researchers from many disciplines rushed into the new field, exchanging ideas--some of them quite wild--and scientifically jamming like jazz musicians. But at the start, the crusade to answer the countless questions raised by the discovery of REM sleep was led almost single-handedly by William Dement, who’d become fascinated by sleep research in his second year of medical school after attending a lecture by Nathaniel Kleitman.

When an enthusiastic Dement knocked on the infamous closed door to Kleitman’s office in 1952 to see if he could become an assistant in his lab, Kleitman peered out, asked if Dement knew anything about sleep, and when the young med student replied honestly that he didn’t, the taciturn Kleitman simply said "Read my book" and closed the door with a force just short of a slam. Dement quickly caught up on his reading and went to work in Kleitman’s lab, where he helped Eugene Aserinsky complete REM sleep recording sessions for the study that finally earned him his long-awaited degree.

From The Mind at Night, chapter 1, pages 1-16. Copyright 2004 by Andrea Rock. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever, except for brief quotations embodied in critical articles with reviews, without written permission from the publisher, Basic Books.

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